COVID-19

Farmers’ outlook improves amid pandemic woes

Sabri Ben-Achour Sep 3, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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Farmers repair a grain drill while planting soybeans in April in Illinois. China is reportedly buying more soybeans, and that's one reason farmers are feeling better about the future. Scott Olson/Getty Images
COVID-19

Farmers’ outlook improves amid pandemic woes

Sabri Ben-Achour Sep 3, 2020
Farmers repair a grain drill while planting soybeans in April in Illinois. China is reportedly buying more soybeans, and that's one reason farmers are feeling better about the future. Scott Olson/Getty Images
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Farmers felt a lot better about farming in August than they did in June and July, according to the Ag Economy Barometer, put together by Purdue University and CME Group. It was up 26 points to 144, which means they felt a lot better.

Farmers have suffered this year: Restaurants stopped buying for a while, meat packing plants shut down, crop prices fell — and then there were the natural disasters.

“The last several months have been super tense,” said Dale Moore, executive vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Now, farmers are a little more positive. “[That] doesn’t mean they’re jumping up and down and shooting off fireworks, but I can see some sunshine on this.”

Ray of sunshine No. 1 is trade, according to Michael Langemeier, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue.

“We’ve heard more positive news, particularly in relationship to China buying soybeans,” Langemeier said. “That’s really improved sentiment.”

Ray of sunshine No. 2: prices

“Farmers are paying attention to prices,” said Dan Sumner, professor of agricultural economics at University of California, Davis. “That’s the big deal going on here.”

Corn prices rose in August, in part because poor growing conditions limited supply, benefiting farmers in the Midwest. But as the economy improved, crop prices have been good to farmers elsewhere, too, including in California, which produces more crops in dollar terms than any other state.

“Hog prices have come back, cattle prices have come back a bit, milk prices came back a lot,” Sumner said.

Government payments to farmers have been critical, and Sumner said the economic downturn pushed some unemployed workers into agriculture, so labor shortages weren’t as bad as some farmers feared. Of course, all of the momentum farmers may be feeling now could evaporate if COVID-19 surges again in the fall or winter.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What does the unemployment picture look like?

It depends on where you live. The national unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 15% in April down to 8.4% percent last month. That number, however, masks some big differences in how states are recovering from the huge job losses resulting from the pandemic. Nevada, Hawaii, California and New York have unemployment rates ranging from 11% to more than 13%. Unemployment rates in Idaho, Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont have now fallen below 5%.

Will it work to fine people who refuse to wear a mask?

Travelers in the New York City transit system are subject to $50 fines for not wearing masks. It’s one of many jurisdictions imposing financial penalties: It’s $220 in Singapore, $130 in the United Kingdom and a whopping $400 in Glendale, California. And losses loom larger than gains, behavioral scientists say. So that principle suggests that for policymakers trying to nudge people’s public behavior, it may be better to take away than to give.

How are restaurants recovering?

Nearly 100,000 restaurants are closed either permanently or for the long term — nearly 1 in 6, according to a new survey by the National Restaurant Association. Almost 4.5 million jobs still haven’t come back. Some restaurants have been able to get by on innovation, focusing on delivery, selling meal or cocktail kits, dining outside — though that option that will disappear in northern states as temperatures fall. But however you slice it, one analyst said, the United States will end the year with fewer restaurants than it began with. And it’s the larger chains that are more likely to survive.

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